PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) _ This state's official name, The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, is more than just a mouthful. To many, it evokes stinging reminders of Rhode Island's prime role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Voters next Tuesday will decide whether to change the name by dropping the words "and Providence Plantations.'' The issue has been debated for years, but lawmakers last year authorized a ballot question for the first time following an impassioned debate over race relations, ancestry and history.
"You go anywhere and you mention plantations and what automatically comes to a person's mind is slavery,'' said Nick Figueroa, 41, a member of a legislative minority advisory coalition that backs changing the name.
Supporters of the referendum see the ballot question as a chance to erase the state's links to slavery and remove a word they associate with human bondage and suffering. But opponents, including Gov. Don Carcieri, note that the state name actually has nothing to do with slavery and that, in any case, changing it will do nothing to alter history.
Michael Vorenberg, a Brown University history professor, said he understands the contemporary connotation of the word “plantations'' but favors keeping the name because it provokes questions.
"People might naturally say, 'What does that word mean and why is it in the state name?' And that may lead to a discussion of the role of slavery in the history of Rhode Island, in the history of New England,'' Vorenberg said.
The referendum's prospects are unclear. The issue has been overshadowed by a competitive gubernatorial race and congressional elections, and advocates of the name change haven't run advertisements. The four leading gubernatorial candidates all oppose it.
"The overall concerns right now are jobs and the economy, and I think that's foremost in people's minds, as opposed to altering the name,'' Figueroa said.
Many Rhode Islanders might not even know its formal name. It isn't listed on modern-day maps, though it is on the state seal, is found in many official state documents and can be heard in the courtroom when the judge is announced.
The phrase “Providence Plantations'' appeared in the royal charter granted in 1663 by King Charles II to the colony of Rhode Island. At the time, "Plantation'' was a general term for settlement or colony. In this case, it referred to the merger of the Providence settlement, which was founded by minister Roger Williams following his banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and nearby towns into a single colony.
Keith Stokes, who is multiracial and can trace his family's arrival to Newport back centuries, said the debate over the state name ignores Rhode Island's legacy as a colony founded on religious tolerance, where Jews, Quakers and other minorities settled in large numbers after being rejected elsewhere. The principle of separation of church and state is laid out in the colony's charter long before being formalized in the Bill of Rights.
"It has all these people who have been cast out because they worship differently and they all land in Rhode Island,'' said Stokes, who is also executive director of the state's economic development corporation. "We have so many stories to share, we have such rich histories.''
Proponents of the name change say they recognize the word "plantations'' was not initially associated with slavery, but argue the original meaning is irrelevant, especially because 18th century Rhode Island emerged at the forefront of a thriving industry in which local merchants got rich off the exchange of slaves, rum, sugar and molasses among New England, the Caribbean and West Africa.
They say "plantations'' is inextricably linked to slavery, just as the swastika, traditionally a harmonious symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism, has since been adopted as an emblem of Nazi Germany and is today associated with ethnic hatred.
The name change had previously been debated by the General Assembly but wasn't approved for a referendum until last year, when a group of primarily African-American lawmakers made a strong push and spoke of racial divisions and the lingering negative connotations of the word "plantations.'' Even some legislators who said they were personally ambivalent agreed to put the issue to the voters after seeing how strongly their colleagues felt.
Figueroa said he didn't know how much it would cost to change the name but expected it would be minimal. He said the focus was on phasing out the name on state correspondence but not on changing the state seal embedded in the floor of the Statehouse.
The ballot question in itself is a victory, regardless of what voters decide, said Harold Metts, a black state senator who helped lead the effort for the referendum.
"At least people understand why we feel the way we feel. For me, that's part of healing,'' Metts said.
Pictured: Harold Metts